Knowing the Score

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Knowing the Score

Many of us take reading for granted.

But if you’ve ever watched a child discover the connection between words written on a page and names and stories and ideas, you’ve seen the sparking of magic, the bestowal of power.

I read the story long ago (sorry, I can’t find the source; if you recognize it, please credit it in the comments below) of missionaries in a culture that had no written language. The chief was very unimpressed with the Bible; he had no concept of book.

To illustrate how a book conveys a message, a missionary asked the chief to tell him what was going on in his life. The chief described how his “woman” had recently become ill and died. The missionary wrote down the chief’s words, then took the chief to see his (the missionary’s) partner. The partner read the missionary’s note, and said to the chief, “I’m so sorry your woman died.” The startled chief began to comprehend the power of the written word.

At a pre-concert chat I attended recently at the Phoenix Symphony, pianist Shai Wosner shared how his parents insisted on sending him to piano lessons at age five (Wosner started playing piano on his own when he was three) because they wanted him to learn how to read music notation. He really didn’t appreciate the value of that skill until, a few years later, they gave him the orchestral score of Mozart’s Requiem. There, laid out in front of him, was a visual representation of a complex work of genius. He could see the entrances of the instruments and the voices; the patterns of melody, harmony, rhythms, and dynamics; the techniques the composer utilized to develop his themes. The power of that moment affected him deeply, and I experienced it vicariously through his relating it.

Mozart Requiem 3

Here is what the music above (an excerpt from a section of the Mozart Requiem) sounds like (up to the 0:49 mark):

Can you follow along? Do you have the power to connect the symbols to the sounds?

Friends, it is of vital importance that our children tap into that power. They partake of it when they learn to read, when they learn another language, when they grasp mathematic principles, when they discover the laws of physics by building a structure, when they create art, when they look through a magnifying glass.

Music literacy is as important as English literacy. Acquiring the skill of reading music notation exercises the brain in a way that makes the decoding of other symbols easier. Music literacy is not a frill; it’s a  strategic component of a comprehensive educationOur kids deserve a rich, experiential education. Anything less limits them.

I’ll get off my soapbox now.

Back to beautiful music. Here is an example of the artistry of Shai Wosner:

Can you read music? Can you speak more than one language? Can you write computer code? Do you agree that there are many kinds of literacy? Can you think of any reason that would justify eliminating music literacy instruction from public education? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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